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Private Investigations on Indian Reservations

  • October 01, 2018
  • by Stephanie Irvine
  • Articles

Private investigators’ work can span a wide range of services, from surveillance to skip tracing and researching information. For surveillance specifically, private investigators may surveil targets at their place of work, homes, and social events.

While all of this is standard protocol, extra steps must be taken when handling jobs that occur in places that require special circumstances, such as on Indian reservations. With various Indian reservations across the United States, it is not unheard of that a private investigator may need to conduct work within a reservation’s borders.

Law on Indian Reservations

Indian reservations present distinct challenges to private investigators due to their independent legal standing. Indian reservations are federally recognized and managed by the FBI as well a the United States Department of the Interior of Indian Affairs. According to the United States Department of the Interior of Indian Affairs, there are 573 federally recognized American Indian tribes and Alaska Natives, with approximately 300 reservations.

To begin with, you must understand that Indian reservations, though federally recognized,  are not governed by state law. Instead, the relationship between the United States and a reservation is a “government-to-government principle”. The United States government treats Indian reservations similarly to the manner in which they treat other independent nations or countries when it comes to laws. When it comes to investigations and legal matters, the FBI handles major crimes,  while the tribal courts handle minor crimes.

Now that we have broken down the unique nature of an Indian reservation, it is time to consider how you will conduct your investigation. Prior to beginning any on-the-ground investigative work, it is important to do your research on the individual reservation itself to understand how it works and so that you understand the territory in which you may find yourself working.

Before The Investigation

Before beginning work on a reservation, you definitely want to consult the tribal law and determine if the work you need to do is permissible. Because state and even local governments do not have jurisdiction or authority with the reservation, you will need to look at the tribal law, which governs the Indian reservation.

Thankfully, you can find a great breakdown of the different tribal laws online through the United States government website that offers information on tribes or through other Native American legal sites, such as the Tribal Law Clearinghouse or through the Native American Rights Fund, which provides a number of resources.

Aside from being familiar with the tribal law of the reservation in which you intend to conduct an investigation, it is important to reach out to local officials on the reservation to ensure that you are following the tribal law. Additionally, they may need to grant you permission or you may need permits to conduct your work. You can find a directory of tribal leaders through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Ample preparation is key and can save you headaches down the road.

Conducting Your Investigation

As a private investigator, the manner in which you conduct your investigation should not vary too much. There may be specific regulations that you have to follow with regard to tribal law that may prevent you from utilizing certain technology or techniques, but that is dependant upon the specific reservation’s tribal law.

Similar to serving process on an Indian reservation, it is imperative that you understand the laws that are specific not only to the reservation but also to your job and what you need to do. There may be laws regarding GPS tracking, satellites, surveillance, and more that can change the way you conduct your investigation. If you have permission from the tribal council to conduct your investigation, you may be permitted to do more (or less) than you are able to do outside of the reservation.

One tribal officer detailed his experience working with reservations, and the common theme was that they are all different. The rules are not often overtly apparent, which is why we have reiterated that you must take the time to look into the laws of the specific reservation. Similarly to conducting an investigation with a subject who is out of the state or out of the country from which you normally practice, take the same precautions with investigations on reservations.

Just as you may surveil a target and wait to see what they do in their time outside of work, you may also surveil and investigate an individual if and when they leave the reservation. Stick to your investigative instincts and conduct your investigation the way you would with anyone else — remaining cognizant of the rules. 


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